As days passed after Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) hit the Philippines in November 2013, the news focused on the death toll and the magnitude of destruction. Meanwhile, emergency first responders and rescue teams tried to focus on saving lives. I will try to withhold any opinions I have about things written below. Instead, I present stories of people from the first medical teams on the ground.
Emergency first responders from the United States Marines, Mammoth Medical Missions, and Team Rubicon told their stories during the Talakayan sa Pasuguan entitled Haiyan: The Perspective of First Responders hosted by the Embassy on 16 January 2013.
Col. Christopher Starling of the US Marines; Dr. Michael Karch, CEO of Mammoth Medical Missions; and Lourdes Tiglao of Team Rubicon spoke of the challenges they faced being first on the ground.
The medical teams from Mammoth Medical Missions and Team Rubicon, made up of military veterans, treated patients who suffered from head lacerations, crush wounds, and those who needed to be amputated. They did these on little sleep and little food.
“We knew the first 72 to 100 hours would be uncovered. We knew it would be an austere and difficult environment. We were self sustaining for five days. We had to cut our caloric intake to 800 calories. The Geneva Convention requires a prisoner of war to have at least 1,800 calories a day. We were at 800,” said Karch.
According to Tiglao, a Filipina and US Armed Forces Veteran deployed in Tanauan, Leyte, those who were injured still found a way to put the needs of others first.
“The strength and resiliency of the Filipino people are incredible. Even the injured were putting the needs of others before their own, and sometimes this took a toll on them, said Tiglao.
Lessons from the ground
The panelists also used the Talakayan as a venue to impart lessons learned from Typhoon Haiyan.
“The Chinese symbol for crisis is divided into two – risk and opportunity. Every crisis situation has an amount of risk, but also opportunity. There is an enormous amount of opportunity to teach in the Philippines and Southeast Asia,” said Karch.
He also talked about how the first responders found and made use of opportunities presented to them. In the midst of a water shortage, semi trucks became water source in Tanauan, which is a bottling factory for Pepsi. Water was tapped from roofs. Resources from a fire truck helped them continue their work.
“Firetrucks are a gold mine in a mass casualty event. Firemen take care of their equipment – gas tank is always full, the tank is full of water, and the battery is always charged. We converted the battery as a source of AC power,” Karch explained.
“We turned over dressers and made them into additional operating tables. We performed surgeries on the mayor’s table,” he added.
In times of crisis, information is just as important as resources like food, water, and shelter.
“There was a need for information. Information from certain places was not getting to where it was supposed to—to the World Health Organization, Department of Health, and other state organizations,” said Tiglao.
To get the information they needed and to get to otherwise inaccessible places, Team Rubicon traded supplies with locals.
“We learned that in a crisis situation, money is useless. We used the barter system. It is not just resources that are important but also good will. Showing someone that you genuinely want to help rather than just furthering your organization’s mission will get you a long way,” said Tiglao.
Positivity and small victories
To keep spirits up, the responders focused on small victories, saving lives, and giving life.
“In a mass casualty event, babies are going to keep coming. Having an obstetrician in your forward surgical team is imperative. We were bringing life out of death. News agencies were focusing on how many died. People on the ground were focusing on life,” said Karch.
People on the ground also focused on making sure those who survived remained safe. It is common for disease to breakout after a disaster of this magnitude. However, this was not the case during Haiyan.
“There was no massive disease breakout after this tragedy. A pandemic or outbreak of disease is usually seen in the aftermath of such an event. That didn’t happen. This was the result of hard work and planning from the government of the Philippines and other aid agencies,” said Starling.
“We were there to assess the situation, save lives, evacuate the ill and injured, provide food, water, and shelter, resupply water, and enable logistics by opening up roads, waterways, and airports. After that, the Philippine government was able to say ‘we’ve got this,’” he added.
Violence and crime tend to escalate during disasters. The first responders tried to lead by example in order to quell violence.
“People were hungry. We learned that if you assure them that they will get their share of food, people are willing to line up and wait their turn,” said Tiglao.
“We saw that the more that we worked, the more they worked. This little nugget of positivity spread throughout the town. We heard about incidents of violence elsewhere, but we did not hear of any where we were,” said Karch.
Shoulder to shoulder
Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia expressed his gratitude for the work done by the first responders.
“I cannot overestimate the important role played by these first responders in helping save the lives of many Filipinos. On behalf of the people of the Philippines, I extend to Col. Starling, Lt. Col. Camunag, Dr. Karch, Ms. Tiglao and those they represent, the gratitude of the people of the Philippines and our prayers that the Lord may strengthen you as you continue your life-saving work around the world,” said Ambassador Cuisia.
According to Tiglao, building and keeping relationships with the government, military, and other organizations will help make responses to future disasters quicker and more effective. Col. Starling emphasized this by saying, “Anytime we’re needed, we’ll be there shoulder to shoulder with our Philippine counterparts.”